Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.
It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.
So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?
In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.
Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.
‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life
A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.
Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happens to you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.
In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).
Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca
In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”
The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.
Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.
The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose
Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.
In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).
Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.
Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.
It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.
The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.
Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.
But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.
It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.
As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.
In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.
By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:
- Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
- Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.
A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.
A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.
One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.
Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.
Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.
A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.
I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.
I discovered what truly brought me joy.
Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:
“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”
Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.